VDOT Researches Wildlife Patterns to Increase Roadway Safety

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Photo courtesy of VDOT Photo courtesy of VDOT

The Virginia Department of Transportation is aiming to make the commute over Afton Mountain on Interstate 64 safer.

VDOT is conducting a study that focuses on animals, after a wave of crashes involving bears and deer over the last few years. The study is two years in, with one year left. The early indications are that there's a real problem when it comes to animals.

Anyone who's taken I-64 over Afton Mountain knows it can be treacherous.

“I love the mountain when it's beautiful but it's hazardous when it's foggy,” said DuBose Egelston, a driver.

VDOT has long had its eye on the area due to the fog, the speed, and the steep grade. “You have some challenges for drivers that could be anything from fog to speed differentials between cars and trucks and obviously wildlife as well,” said Ken Slack, spokesperson for VDOT.

Experts at the Virginia Wildlife Center in Waynesboro say they are happy to finally see this kind of study.

“Afton Mountain has a perfect wildlife habitat on the north side and on the south side so a lot of these animals are using it as a natural migration corridor, whether it be in their daily routines or an annual routine,” said Dave McRuer, director of veterinary services for the Virginia Wildlife Center.

Since the study kicked off two years ago, VDOT has reported 300 crashes involving deer and 10 black bear deaths. There’s still another year to go.

“The animals just want to go where naturally the habitat occurs and unfortunately there's a highway that bisects that corridor,” McRuer said.

But for Egelston, who drives the road almost every day, cautious driving is still the most important thing. “I think people don't pay attention to the fog like they should,” he said.

As a solution to the problems with wildlife, VDOT is considering fences, an animal overpass, and even some in-car technology. But the final results won’t come about until next year.

Virginia Department of Transportation Press Release

RICHMOND, Va. – They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but while this bear and her cubs watching traffic on the interstate may get a lot of attention, it's the story behind the photo that should grab headlines. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is working to make roads safer – for wildlife and motorists alike – by researching animal travel patterns.

VDOT's research division, the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research (VCTIR), is conducting a three-year study to identify strategic locations to reduce animal-vehicle collisions.

For this study, VDOT targeted a section of Interstate 64 on Afton Mountain in Albemarle, Augusta and Nelson counties due to the high number of related crashes in those areas. When the study began in 2012, deer-vehicle collisions were the third most frequent type of accident in the region, accounting for up to 30 percent of all crashes. The study will be completed in late 2015.

“VDOT is seeking innovative ways to meet the needs of motorists, increase safety and at the same time protect wildlife,” said VDOT Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick. “Our goal through this valuable research is to come to the table with recommended locations for cost-effective strategies to help mitigate these crashes, increase safety and reduce the significant dangers that can occur when wildlife and motorists meet on the roadway.”

Caption: The photo in this news release is from VDOT's research study to identify strategic locations for wildlife crash mitigation.

Larger photos are available on VDOT's Flickr site.

Recent numbers included 300 deer fatalities from 2012 to 2014 on I-64 along Afton Mountain, plus 10 black bear deaths in the same area in September and October 2013. Biologists from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) have attributed more frequent and visible bear movement to scarce food supplies last fall.

“Animal-vehicle collisions represent one of the most significant wildlife-management challenges in many parts of Virginia, due to concerns about human safety, wildlife population impacts and animal welfare,” said VDGIF Executive Director Bob Duncan. “VDGIF is pleased to collaborate with VDOT and its researchers on the Afton Mountain project, which we see as a step forward in understanding how, when and where animals are crossing roads and how to adapt accordingly.”

A 2008 Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) report to Congress on reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions found the most effective methods to reduce such crashes are fencing, either alone or used with wildlife crossings (overpasses or underpasses), and animal-detection driver-warning systems that can detect animals near the roadway and alert drivers.

The FHWA report estimated the cost per deer-vehicle collision at $8,388 (in 2008 dollars), which includes factors such as property damage, human injury, and animal removal and disposal. The VDOT researchers cited that report in their initial proposal for this I-64 project.

VDOT published two other research studies in 2005 and 2010 that investigated the use of animal underpasses by wildlife throughout Virginia. They both concluded that if such structures are properly located and are the right size, deer, bear and other animals will use them.

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